Group home residents gravitate towards ‘at-your-service’ robot

Vancouver, BC — There’s a new resident at Richmond-based Camsell House, one of 19 group homes operated by the Developmental Disabilities Association (DDA) throughout Vancouver and Richmond. Though he’s not there every day, he’s already causing quite a stir.

Meet Aether, a first-of-its-kind ‘collaborative service’ robot, designed and developed by Vancouver-based JDQ Systems Inc. in partnership with DDA and Mitacs researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU). Named after the Greek reference to the upper heavens, the robot is helping residents live independently and is giving support staff an extra set of eyes.

Aether is not intended to replace group home staff, said Danielle White, DDA Director of Residential Services, but to provide extra help by serving as a ‘smart’ assistant. Some of the robot’s tasks will include detecting falls or seizures, turning lights on and off, giving medication reminders or prompting residents to do chores, for example.

The current phase of the project — called the 3Spheres Robotics Project — is focused on perfecting Aether’s navigational and recognition skills, enabling it to ‘see’ and ‘hear.’ The robot is capable of speaking, following orders and moving from room to room, and will soon accurately recognize Carol, a Camsell House resident who is providing feedback to help with its design.

“When we told Carol we were building a robot, she said she’d love a robot to play cards with her and be her friend,” said White, noting that the robot’s social role is just as important as its safety role.

Sina Radmard, a Mitacs postdoctoral fellow at UBC is leading the effort to help Aether safely navigate around Camsell House and serves as research manager for the project. One specific challenge, he says, is programming Aether to recognize and appropriately respond when residents act in an unexpected way. “Sometimes their reactions are unpredictable so safety is our number one priority,” he said.

To personalize the robot’s services, JDQ’s software developers have connected Microsoft’s Office 365 Calendars to DDA’s Alchemist program, software that manages residents’ personal goals and individual service plans. They are also making it possible for Aether to serve as a concierge, managing resident schedules according to an electronic calendar, and allowing DDA to record meaningful data that can be used to measure outcomes or revise resident goals, explained Jon Morris, President of JDQ Systems.

“When a robot knows your personal calendar, it interacts with you better socially. Instead of waiting for you to ask a question, it initiates the conversation,” said Morris, who credits Mitacs for recognizing and supporting the unique way that the project has brought the business, not-for-profit and academic sectors together for social innovation.

“Aether will also be able to capture and record resident responses,” he added. “If Aether detects that a resident repeatedly shows interest in a specific activity such as swimming or bowling, for example, DDA staff can be informed and help make it happen.”

With a working prototype and commercialization plan scheduled to be ready by June 2018, Aether’s presence is already demonstrating a difference, said White. “We have a gentleman who came to us 35 years ago as a vibrant young man with Down syndrome, who’s now very passive and falls asleep most of the time,” she said. “When the robot came into his room, he sat up and started to giggle. That’s when we said ‘Bingo! We’re onto something.’”

Future plans include giving Aether the ability to ‘smell’ by accurately identifying small air particles with the goal of helping to detect situations such as incontinence, smoke or gas leaks. Researchers are also investigating touch capabilities and sensory features such as fibre optics, light projection, sounds and beeps, since studies show they can help to reduce anxiety in people with development disabilities.

For now, DDA is serving as the testing ground for Aether, but future markets include assisting caregivers who are caring for family members with disabilities at home, as well as seniors living independently. “Aether is an added safety value to help alert staff,” said White. “Ideally I would love a robot at every site. It alleviates pressure on staff and frees them up to do different things, like teach residents how to cook or use an iPad, among many other things.”

Quick facts:

  • Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 17 years.
  • Mitacs internships connect companies and organizations with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who apply their specialized expertise to research challenges.
  • Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada. Open to all disciplines and all industry sectors, projects can span a wide range of areas, including manufacturing, business processes, IT, social sciences, design and more.